Don’t Be Afraid to Copy Others to Find Your Own Original Voice

When I was growing up, I had two obnoxious yet close friends. They were both creative, and drew beautiful things. Yet they would snap at me any time I would do something similar to what they were creating.

Don’t copy me.
You don’t have any personality.
Stop doing things like me.

They would even stop talking to me for a while and be mad at me.

I know, amazing friends, right?

At any rate, I grew up thinking: copying others is wrong. If you want to do art, you have to come up with something of your own.

Therefore, I never understood when artists were asked about the people who inspired them, and influenced their work. Surely they haven’t copied anyone, otherwise we wouldn’t consider them as artists.

Until I started writing.

In one of my earliest articles, I wrote about the 22 things I had experienced by 22. I actually got the idea from Tim Denning’s article — exactly the same format, just different life content.

As I reached out to ask for his opinion on my own piece, I couldn’t help but feel stressed about his reaction — was he going to be mad ?

Was he going to lash out at me for doing the exact same thing as he did?

But he didn’t. He gave me feedback and stressed that he wanted me to succeed. No harm done. Hmm.

Then I met Tom, an extremely successful writer. For no other reason than kindness, he started sharing all the tips that had worked for him to grow his Medium followers’ base, and encouraged me to do the same.

He published every day, so I published every day.
He had a publication of his own, so I created mine.

I was still concerned that I was copying him too much, but he told me to just keep going.

And something wonderful happened.

Yes, I had been following someone else’s footsteps.

Yes, Tom’s and other authors’ themes inspired me.

But in the process, I started doing things my way.

I’ve found my own way of arranging my articles.

My own way to express my ideas.

Six months after I started writing, I’ve refined more and more my own voice.

I read a lot of articles that I find interesting and that trigger thoughts.

The ideas themselves are not always from me, but I can then process them, put them together, internalize them and re-express them in my own way.
And I’ve learned that that’s a perfectly valid way of being creative.
Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it — Laurence J. Peter

For artistic endeavors, I’ve had the same experience. I used to draw a bit as a teenager by looking at pictures and replicating them. I thought that wasn’t real art.

So, when I started doing painting afternoons with my colleagues in Sydney, and when my friend Christelle explained her process to paint her own art, that belief broke down as well.

Therefore, I started approaching originality and inspiration like this:

You’ll replicate sketches.
You’ll look at how other artists you love do things.
You’ll find paintings, articles, drawings you admire.
And then you’ll add a layer of your own. And another one. And another one.
And that will be your own, original work.

I’ve also seen this fear in others. As I realized one of my friends started blogging after she started reading me, I was thrilled. I asked her — why didn’t you tell me?! It’s awesome!

She told me she was afraid that I’d be mad. Why would I be mad?

“Because I’m copying you”, she said.

I decided to give up on this nonsense, and encourage others to do, too.

We are all free to expose ourselves to art, and let ourselves get inspired.

When we don’t know where to start, there’s nothing wrong with following the steps and the work of others we admire.

Eventually, our own self-expression will shine through.